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Stop-Loss (2008)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 7/8/2008

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 7/5/2008

I only have anecdotal evidence to support this, but I believe that rock music really blossoms during politically turbulent times. I have a lot of favorite music from the late 80s and from recent years, but very little from the mid 90s. The same premise can be applied to movies as well. Movies often reflect a political climate, even if they contain no overt political issues. Those films which do primarily focus on politics often divide audiences. Stop-Loss is a very topical movie which will certain make each viewer reflect on their political and personal beliefs.

Stop-Loss opens in Iraq, where we see a U.S. Army unit, lead by Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), manning a checkpoint. When a car bursts through, a battle begins and several members of the group are killed or severely wounded. The action then shifts to Brazos, Texas. This is the site of the Army base where Brandon was trained, and also his hometown, along with fellow soldiers Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum). Brandon is glad to be home because his tour of duty is over and he's ready to begin civilian life. However, he's immediately told that he's been "stop-lossed", a term which means that by order of the President, he is being forced to remain in the Army and return to Iraq. (This policy was put into placed due to the decline of people enlisting in the Army.) Feeling that he's done his duty, and weary of returning to a potential death-trap, Brandon fights this, but he's told that there is no way out. So, accompanied by Steve's girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), Brandon goes AWOL and hits the road in search of help.

Stop-Loss comes from Writer/Director Kimberly Peirce, the maker of Boys Don't Cry, and like that Oscar-winning film, her new movie tackles some tough topics and doesn't pull any punches. The movie takes a hard (and presumably realistic) look at the lives of soldiers. In the beginning, we see the soldiers in Iraq. The battle scene is very gritty, realistic, and violent. This is mixed with video footage (both created for the film and taken from real soldiers) showing what the soldiers do in their downtime. Whether in battle or goofing off, we see that the men take this all very seriously and that they have a strong bond.

However, once they get home, things change. Steven has difficulty returning to civilian life, and displays some behavior which implies that his mind is still on the battlefield. Tommy has trouble controlling his temper and he can't relax. As a nice change of pace, the film presents these events without going into any explanation about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The biggest change comes from Brandon. Again, he's the perfect soldier, and he's decorated during the homecoming parade. But, he's also very excited and relieved to be getting out. When he's informed that he's going back, he becomes very angry, and some of the things which he says will no doubt shock some viewers. Brandon's mindset suddenly changes and he suddenly becomes very disillusioned with both the Army and our government. It's refreshing that Stop-Loss can show a soldier who is both gung-ho about his job, but also has a realistic reaction to the news that he must go back to the war.

The first 45-minutes of Stop-Loss is very intense and engrossing as we see the effects that the war has on these soldiers. We get a clear sense of how difficult it is to transition from fighting for your life in a foreign land to coming back home to "normal" life. However, once Brandon decides to seek help for his predicament, the movie changes focus and loses much of its steam. The story of Brandon and Michelle heading cross-country becomes a road-movie, with a hint of an "on the lam" story. We still have some investment in Brandon's story, but the more they travel, the more the tension dissipates. The movie regains its power for a short time, when Brandon visits a wounded soldier, but otherwise, things wind down to the ending.

And that ending is left open to interpretation to the audience. It's not completely vague, something definitely happens, but we aren't fully told why it happens. And that ending is going to split viewers. Some will feel that it's a cop-out that doesn't match the tone of the rest of the movie, and some will see it as an inevitable conclusion. To me, it felt like something which had been tacked on, and I fully expected an "alternate ending" in the extras.

Stop-Loss is one of those films which some people will choose not to see simply because of their political views. That's unfortunate, as the film can easily be construed as anti-war, but it's extremely non-partisan in its portrayal of the soldiers as real people. And those soldiers are well played by the cast, especially Phillippe, who has gotten past being "Reese Witherspoon's (ex) husband)" and become quite an actor. It's just too bad that the film can't maintain its momentum. Despite the fact that the second-half is a let-down, Stop-Loss contains a powerful message and is worth seeing.

Stop-Loss fights on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks fairly good, as the image is sharp and clear for the most part. Grain is kept to a minimum (save for the video footage) and there are no defects from the source material. Still, the image is slightly dark at times and there is some video noise present in some scenes. The film has a slightly muted color palette, but things look very good in the opening scenes. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The movie really wants to drive home the battle scenes, so the stereo, surround, and bass effects in the first act are fantastic. (I would have loved to have heard this on Blu-ray!) The gunfire surrounds us and the explosions rock the subwoofer. Following this, things calm down, but we still get good stereo action during crowd scenes and some occasional surround effects.

The Stop-Loss DVD contains only a few extra features. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Kimberly Pierce and Co-writer Mark Richard. This is a very informative talk, as the pair discuss many facets of the film's production. They talk a lot about the story and the work which went into character development, while trying to keep things realistic. They discuss location shooting and heap praise on their actors. "The Making of Stop-Loss" (21 minutes) is a very well-done documentary as, for once, it focuses on the creation and writing of the film. Pierce and Richard discuss the initial ideas for the movie and we actually see them doing the research and interviewing experts on the effects of stop-loss on real soldiers. The focus then shifts to the actual production of the film. We see the crew on location in Morocco. There is then a look at the actors and characters. This is one of the better featurettes that I've seen recently, because it's not a puff piece. "A Day in Boot Camp" (10 minutes) shows the actors going through modified Army training to prepare for the film. The DVD contains eleven DELETED SCENES which run about 19 minutes, and can be viewed with optional commentary from Pierce. Some of these fill in gaps which are very palpable in the film, but the rest are either incidental or character pieces.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long